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Death of the chalkboard and the demise of the sage on the stage

- Deborah Minors

The launch of a high-tech eZone, eFundanathi – “Learn with Us”, is set to revolutionise teaching and learning at Wits.

In a vast hall that previously housed sewing machines, a student scribbles on a wall and Harry Potter emerges. Next door, in a former domestic science lab, students in hospital greens lounge on bright bean-bags and fixate on a wall-mounted monitor. Adjacent to them someone extracts a prosthetic limb from a 3D printer. In a keyhole-shaped pod,
two heads bob in muted debate while alongside, a couple wrestles with an X-Box. These aren’t lazy Millennials loafing – they are Wits students in the classroom of the future and the future is now.

Accessing a digital playground

The eZone and eFundanathi (learn with us) team is the brainchild of Paula Barnard, an Occupational Therapist and PhD candidate who lectures eLearning (educational technologies) at Wits. A joint initiative of the School of Therapeutic Sciences and the School of Education, the eZone is a physical learning space that uses cutting-edge technology and advanced eLearning tools to deliver education that prepares students for the 21st Century.

“South Africa needs trained healthcare and other professionals but escalating costs inhibit access for students who cannot afford fees and textbooks. Furthermore, increasing student numbers impact lecturer-student ratios and actual space. As a physical learning space, the eZone creates a platform for transformation and responds to the call for curriculum renewal and transformative pedagogy,” says Barnard.

The eZone is equipped with broadband Wi-Fi, 80 laptops, 20 iPads, and 20 Galaxy tablets. Here students can connect to Skype or Google Hangouts and interact with academic experts worldwide instantly. There’s a split projector on the wall that enables group learning by reflecting multiple images posted by students simultaneously, for comparison and discussion. There are GoPros for students to take into the field for assignments and other content development
so that they can edit the footage.

eLearning has been lauded internationally for dramatically transforming the teaching and learning space. Through eLearning, study costs are significantly reduced, student access to learning materials improves, and the teaching environment allows for rapid innovation.

Sibusiso Moya, a third-year occupational therapy student, says: “The eZone is a place where one can explore the
yet undiscovered gems of technology-based learning and medical practice – not the proverbial 3D-interactive image
in which one learns or attempts to learn from when faced with Anatomy. This is a space I feel that one can explore
other elements to their interests [and] not just the baseline degree. You can test the waters of an unaffordable interest.”

eLearning ebb and flow

Classroom configuration is central to eLearning. The eZone has a ‘cave space’ for solitary introspection while colourful bean-bags stimulate ‘cave opportunities’ for informal interaction. Hexagonal storage seating can be dislocated and relocated for fluidity of teaching and learning. The eZone walls are whiteboard marker friendly so Harry Potter can be erased quicker than you can say “Expelliarmus!”

“Furniture can be configured to different contexts so that students feel comfortable in their space. Concentration is enhanced when movement happens. What’s more, students are actively creating content rather than simply passively absorbing what a lecturer is saying,” says Barnard.

Professor Patricia McInerney is a nurse and Associate Professor in the Centre for Health Science Education. She co-published a paper on teaching and learning theories and teaching methods in the Health Sciences. McInerney is Acting Director of the Centre for Learning, Teaching, and Development (CLTD) at Wits.

“In some faculties, eLearning strategies are used as an adjunct to help students understand the material, and in others the sole method of delivery is online. While technology is great in helping students learn and in getting education to greater numbers, teachers must remain the human face behind the technology,” says McInerney.

Blended learning and the new pedagogy

The eZone marks a shift in pedagogy towards new models of applied knowledge and learning for a high-tech world. But people remain central. Blended learning integrates face-to-face and online learning activities to deliver a comprehensive curriculum. For Barnard, an Inspiring Fifty Women in Technology Africa 2017 nominee, there is more to it.

“The eZone allows for true connectivity where students can learn together, in a tethered community of practice, where the lecturer guides their learning path. They can access global experts instantly, live stream into clinical placements anywhere, and pose questions to each other or others elsewhere to develop new ideas and knowledge to meet the needs of our communities. It’s about taking learning out of the classroom and into the real world, even if you can’t leave the classroom,” she says.

Barnard’s PhD focuses on the integration and uptake of blended learning in undergraduate occupational therapy. In 2014, she co-authored a paper entitled The Influence of Blended Learning on Student Performance in an Undergraduate Occupational Therapy Curriculum.

“Change is scary, especially when technology, digital immigrants [lecturers] and digital natives [students] teach and learn. The body of knowledge is changing – a student is going to Google something you say in class and challenge you. This new pedagogy provides students and lecturers with the opportunity to learn, unlearn and relearn,” says Barnard.

Are lecturers obsolete?

“No. You’re still teaching and you’re still crafting the learning process. But now teachers must be more artful
at creating knowledge,” says Barnard. “We need to build continual curiosity in our students and that’s a learning experience that’s different to the sage on the stage.”

Read more about digital innovation and the interface between humanity and tech in Wits' new research magazine, CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.